‘I want to learn ... to read and write’
Pandemic driving a generation of world’s children to find work
JOTOLCHEN, Mexico — The coronavirus pandemic is threatening the future of a generation of the world’s children, depriving them of schooling and sending them to work. Across the developing world, two decades of gains against child labor are eroding.
With classrooms shuttered and parents losing their jobs, children are trading their ABCs for the D of drudgery: Reading, writing and times tables are giving way to sweat, blisters and fading hopes for a better life.
Instead of going to school, children in Kenya are grinding rocks in quarries. Tens of thousands of children in India have poured into farm fields and factories. Across Latin America, kids are making bricks, building furniture and clearing brush, once after-school jobs that are now full-time work.
These children and adolescents are earning pennies or at best a few dollars a day to help put food on the table.
“Child labor becomes a survival mechanism for many families,” says Astrid Hollander, UNICEF’s head of education in Mexico.
Governments are analyzing how many students have dropped out of their school systems, but with school closures affecting nearly 1.5 billion children around the world, UNICEF estimates the numbers could be in the millions.
Experts say the longer their education is put on hold, the less likely children will return to school. The ramifications, especially for those already lagging, can be lifelong — narrowed job opportunities, lower potential earnings and greater likelihood of poverty and early pregnancy.
“The repercussions could be felt in economies and societies for decades to come,” Henrietta Fore, executive director of UNICEF, the U.N. children’s agency, warned in August. For at least 463 million children whose schools closed, there is no possibility of remote learning.
It is, she said, a “global education emergency.”
In the mountains of Mexico’s Chiapas state, the suspension of school meant 11-year-old Andres Gomez began spending full days swinging a hammer inside a hand-carved mine looking for amber. A native speaker of Tzotzil, Andres had been learning Spanish, a skill that would open more opportunities for him.
“What I want to learn is to read and write,” he says.
His teacher, Joel Hernandez, recently went to pick up workbooks in Jotolchen that students who otherwise have no access to distance learning were supposed to complete. Only about 20% of the students had done the work and Andres wasn’t one of them.
“If Dad is going to the fields, to the coffee grove, to the mine, the child is not going to stay at home with nothing to do,” Hernandez says. “For them, to sit around watching television, if they have it, is like wasting time.”
Experts say in the past, most students who have missed class because of crises like the Ebola epidemic returned when schools reopened. But the longer the crisis drags on, the less likely they will go back.
Yliana Merida, a researcher at the Autonomous University of Chiapas, Mexico, said that even more than before, the pandemic has turned education into a luxury.
“Many parents opt for ‘you’re going to work to help meat home because right now we really need it.’ ”
In El Alto, a suburb perched above Bolivia’s capital of La Paz, five siblings between the ages of 6 and 14 years old are bundled in hats and coats against the chilly mountain air as they and their parents work all in their family’s small carpentry workshop.
Theyoungest, 6-year-old Mariana Geovana, would have started kindergarten this year; instead, she smooths miniature furniture with scraps of sandpaper.
Jonatan, 14, the most experienced, uses the electric saw to cut lengths of wood for doll-size beds and full-size chests of drawers.
“I’m frustrated not being able to go to school,” he says.
The Bolivian government decided to cancel the school year in August because it said there was no way to provide an equitable education to the country’s nearly 3 million students. In a country where informal employment makes up 70% of the economy, the closure of schools put more kids to work.
“We have seen new children and adolescents selling in the street,” says Patricia Velasco, manager of a municipal program for at-risk people in the capital La Paz. “They’ve been pushed to generate income.”
Watching Mariana, Jonatan and his other children at work — and sending the older kids out into the streets to sell their pieces — their father, Hector Delgado, 54, knows what is at stake. “For the students the closure of the school year is a catastrophe. They’re not going to make up the time and I strive for them to be more than carpenters.”
But Delgado, head of the local Artisans Council in El Alto, said the family had burned through their savings and nowdidn’t have money to buy lumber to carry on with its business.
Since the suspension of inperson classes, children are working many more hours than usual throughout the rustic brickyards of Tobati, Paraguay.
With the help of his 10-yearold son, Hugo Godoy shovels mounds of clay and sandy earth, preparing to make the next day’s bricks. Godoy has also been sending him to work at a nearby larger factory where his 15-yearold son works as well since schools closed in March.
“I spoke to the owner and said that if he gave him light work — moving the raw materials and things like that — then I’d let him go,” Godoy said, speaking in his native Guarani language. “There are lots of children working.”
Hector Delgado’s children, wearing masks to curb the spread of the coronavirus, work in the family’s workshop in El Alto, Bolivia.